Teaching Tuesday: Learning Management Systems

The start of school is just under two weeks away. Yes, you read that correctly. Today is July 18th and I officially go back to work next Friday. While students won’t actually pour into our building until July 31st, since we moved to a balanced calendar four years ago, this is now the third year we’ve started school in July.

And that is pretty darn depressing.

It is depressing not just because I have less than two weeks left to sleep in until 8 am or take my kids to the park at 10 am or eat a luxurious 30 minute lunch at any time I want, but because I also really need to kick all of that lesson planning into high gear. Even though I’ve been working on my lessons here and there for several weeks now, I’ve been able to do it at a fairly leisurely pace. I’ve also only been working on the planning. I haven’t actually uploaded any materials into Canvas, our fairly new learning management system.

For those of you who don’t know what a learning management system is, here’s the Spark Notes version: It’s a way for teachers to set up all of their instructional materials in one place so that students can access those materials 24/7 from any place they have access to the internet. Basically, I can take each unit I teach in my classroom, create it as a topic on the management system and upload all resources (links, digital handouts, study guides, etc), assignments and tests. Not only can I eradicate the possibility of students forgetting their materials at school or “forgetting” they have homework, I can also make sure they don’t forget that homework at home. In theory I can even make my classroom 100% paper free as these systems allow students to both turn in all of their homework electronically and take all of their tests on a computer. I can even provide time limits for assignments and make sure students are not turning in assignments late because each assignment gets time and date stamped.

As long as the power* doesn’t go out and everyone has access to the internet**, learning management systems are pretty darn sweet.

However, since 1:1 classrooms are one of the latest trends in education, there are tons of learning management systems out there and while they often have many functions in common, they are just different enough to make switching between them horrible.

My school began a 1:1 experiment about 9 years ago thanks to a grant from the state. As part of the grant, half of our English classrooms were outfitted with outrageously large, immovable computer tables and really rather bulky desktop computers. The state had priority guidelines about which students should have access to the 1:1 classrooms. The first criteria was gifted students, then resource students, then seniors. Since my schedule at the time consisted of senior Advanced Placement students and remedial juniors, I was one of the first teachers to get a 1:1 classroom. Actually, I was the first true 1:1 guinea pig at my school as my principal required me to teach all of my classes using the 1:1 model starting the very first day of class. The other four teachers were given time to adjust their lessons and only had to adopt 1 of their classes fully to be a 1:1 room.

I like a challenge and I really wanted those computers for my journalism kids, so I agreed. I got a very brief introduction to our first learning management system: Moodle, and then I hit the ground running. It didn’t take long for me to be a true believer.

I LOVED Moodle. Our district was kind of broke and so we picked Moodle because it is open source and we could use it relatively cheaply. Although it definitely took some time to front load the classes, I loved the ease with which I could add/remove kids from my classes. I loved that I could separate my courses into groups so that instead of having to set up multiple sections of 10th grade English, I could create one section of assignments and just group each section’s assignments together. Students could peer edit and comment on assignments, but only for those kids in their class. I loved that they had an online chat function so that I could engage my shy kids who would NEVER talk in class, in discussions. They wouldn’t talk, but they’d post. I loved that I didn’t have to bring home tons of papers. I could just grade online. I really loved that any multiple choice, matching or T/F questions on tests would just be graded for me. Kids could use the wiki function to work on assignments together, even if they weren’t in the same state, let alone the same room. I also really loved that  any time students turned in an assignment, I could see if it was late. No kid could claim they’d turned an assignment in and I’d lost it (I have never, in 20 years lost a student’s paper, but many try to claim this). They couldn’t try to sneak it into the homework tray late. It was glorious.

For six wonderful years, we had Moodle. I not only became really adept at using it myself, but I taught lots of other teachers in my school district how to use it. Even some of the “old dogs” were getting with the times and using it. Then, we got a new technology director who had worked with My Big Campus and really thought we should be heading that way. The teachers raised our voices (mine may have been the loudest) because we already had something we loved that was working. For once, we were listened to and we got to keep Moodle. And good thing too…you’ll notice there is no link for MBC and that is because less than 3 months after the proposed switch, they went out of business.

Three years ago, we did hit a rather large speed bump. When our district decided that every student was going to have 1:1 devices, things had to change. Elementary students would be getting iPads and middle and high school students would be getting Chrome books. The district wanted something that could be used on both platforms that would not require the rather large server we had to have to host Moodle. We were told that Moodle was going the way of the dodo and that we needed to start using Google Classroom.

While I was not even remotely happy about the switch, we were promised we’d have time to transfer assignments from Moodle. The only problem, of course, is that those assignments didn’t transfer. I had to create all of my materials from scratch, including my tests. And what was even worse is that those tests, once made public to students, couldn’t be hidden from them. So, any student who was absent the day of a test, could see the test, unless I deleted the assignment and then reposted it, which was a pain. To add insult to injury, the original version of Classroom did not allow for any real organization. Sure, you could have a separate resource page, but when you put an assignment into Classroom, it was the top activity displayed…until you added the next one. For long term assignments like essays and projects, I’d have to constantly go through the feed, find them, and move them back to the top. It was an organizational nightmare. On top of that, since kids were turning everything in in Google Docs, even though they’d turn their assignments in on time, they could constantly update them and I’d see the most updated version. That would mean that they could turn in a document that was partially done and it would look like it was done on time. However, they could then go back and complete the assignment and unless I tracked changes on each and every document, I’d never know it. It was a frustrating year. But, I dutifully changed all of my classes over and rolled with it.

Then, in February, we were told that the district had purchased Canvas and that we’d all have to start using it the following year. That’s right, after going through all the work to change my Moodle classes into Google classes, I now had to change them all to Canvas classes. Screaming was the nicest thing I thought of doing.

Once again, I volunteered to pilot Canvas. I had to go through online Canvas training on my own during the summer to learn how to do it. Last summer I lost track of how much time I spent learning how to use the new system and creating materials in it.

The week before school started, I went in to add more assignments to my Canvas courses only to find them all gone. I broke down in tears.

Thankfully, after the sobbing stopped, I emailed our tech department and found out that all my work was not lost. However, unlike Moodle and Classroom, Canvas is linked to our grading program, Skyward, so even though I was able to create classes in Canvas, the only ones the program officially registered and would allow students into were the ones created using the class rosters from Skyward. Miraculously, Canvas has a wonderful little feature where it can copy a single assignment from another Canvas course or the entire course into any other course. With the click of a button and a few minutes of time, I copied everything over. What is even more glorious about Canvas is that it also allows entire Moodle courses to be transferred into Canvas. So once again a member of my tech department came to my rescue and just turned my former Moodle classes into Canvas ones for me. I didn’t have to recreate everything I’d already recreated for Google Classsroom. With a few clicks, all of my materials were there and ready for me to use.

Even more wonderful to me is that Canvas is set up very much like Moodle. I can organize my course into topics so that all of my vocabulary assignments are grouped together. Everything I teach along with The Great Gatsby is grouped together. I can also completely hide any assignment or test from students. Assignments are all time and date stamped and even marked as late when they show up in the Canvas grade book. I can still grade everything online AND even though my kids turn in Google Docs, once they upload that Doc, it is frozen so they cannot make any changes unless they re-upload a document. No more trying to get credit for partially completed work.

The only downside to Canvas is that our school won’t roll Skyward over until 7/20, so I still have a few more days before I can really organize my classes the way I want them. So, until then I am using good ol’ paper and pen to create the summer reading test for my AP students.

*And when the power does go out, you get a real sense of which teachers thoroughly know their material and can roll with change. We lost power last year for nearly an hour and my students thought it was going to be party time since we’d been working on a collaborative assignment on the computer. Too bad I always have a back up plan! I got out giant poster paper and Sharpies and we did things the old fashioned way.

**This does create a whole new missing homework excuse as now they try to claim the internet or power was out and they therefore couldn’t turn their homework in, which is when I have to remind them that good ol’ paper is always an option.

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